Amazon will now be offering Kindle self-publishers double its usual e-book royalties at 70 percent of the net price, but the rights-heavy deal turns Amazon into the publisher -- without the responsibilities of a publisher.
Based on Amazon's press release, the new option gives Amazon virtually all the major digital rights to the property, or, as Amazon puts it, "The title will be included in a broad set of features in the Kindle Store, such as text-to-speech. This list of features will grow over time as Amazon continues to add more functionality to Kindle and the Kindle Store." In short, the Amazon contract gives the company the right to do as it sees fit with the work in perpetuity.
The traditional book publishing industry was wise enough to make "digital rights" standard in their contracts years ago, even before digital audiobooks, YouTube and other modern mediums took off, though it's clear the Manhattan publishers are still trying to figure out what to do with these rights - - I remember seeing a recent contract calling only for "all CD-ROM rights". In 2008, even. Kind of cute.
That said, the two key difference between a big wig publisher and the Kindle deal are that there is no author representation and that, despite the Kindle, Amazon still isn't a book publisher.
Let's break down the first point. Most major publishers won't even read a manuscript or even a proposal directly from an aspiring writer. As a recent Wall Street Journal article explains, unsolicited submissions are usually avoided because of the sheer number of submissions and/or the fear of legal backlash if the publisher decided to do anything similar to the submission. Instead, submissions are accepted by literary agents, respected people who regularly have lunch with these publishing editors, help filter out the worthy from the unworthy proposals and, for the artists they represent, protect authors from getting reamed by lopsided contracts. An otherwise great Los Angeles Times blog post talks about Amazon trying to bypass the publisher, but Amazon has also effectively bypassed the agent, a much more dangerous prospect for the author.
Now, the second point. The new Kindle deal gives Amazon as much power as a traditional book publisher over an author's work, but it lets Amazon own the rights without the promise of promotion, negotiation or other traditional publishing options. There is no marketing budget. There is no return of rights after the book goes out of print - - because, well, it will never go out of print. There is no renegotiation if the Amazon decided to use the book someway with its Kindle apps - - and no guarantee the author would be paid additionally for it since it isn't technically a "book".
As the Los Angeles Times notes, it's no coincidence Amazon is trumpeting this grabby contract a few days before the likely announcement of Apple's book-friendly "iSlate". We'll find out on Wednesday if Apple's book contract is even more draconian.